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One on One with ... John Young

John Young

John Young

Young is the linchpin of the Salk's small but growing immunology and microbial pathogenesis program (supported by federal research grants and private gifts, including $18 million from the Nomis Foundation). Last summer the National Institutes of Health awarded Young and colleagues a $21 million program grant to study the fundamental science underlying early HIV-1 infection. He now runs his hand-picked multidisciplinary team, coordinating 13 researchers at seven institutions across the country.

What does the public need to understand about conquering the AIDS virus; why is the virus so hard to tame after all these years of research?
An effective vaccine has been difficult to develop, in part because we don't yet know enough about how to stimulate the correct protective response. The AIDS virus is very variable, constantly changing. We now realize that we need to fundamentally understand the repertoire of immune responses required for an effective vaccine.

Web Extra

2008 study by John Young ranked most-cited paper in the Fast Moving Front of Molecular Biology & Genetics. Click here>>

There is also the public perception that the retroviral therapies, often referred to as drug cocktails, have made HIV a treatable disease, and that is mostly true in developed countries. Because of these therapies, HIVinfected individuals can now have normal lifespans. But the constantly evolving nature of the virus, emerging drug resistance and toxic side effects of the therapies are all serious concerns.

One of the purposes of our new federal program grant is to identify parts of infected human cells that could be new drug targets because, unlike the evolving virus, existing cellular structures are not changing.

And what does all that mean to the public?
It means we have quite a way to go before we have HIV totally under control. And it means sexually active people, particularly in high-risk groups, should think seriously before they engage in unprotected sex or needle-sharing. There's a complacency about HIV infection today that is just not appropriate.

What drew you to the U.S. for your scientific career?
I studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Dundee. I had just started my Ph.D. program in Britain at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund when I had the chance to go to the U.S. for a conference. At the time, Harold Varmus (Nobel Laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health) was at UCSF, studying the retroviruses linked to AIDS and cancer. He was the best in the world, and there was a waiting list of people wanting to work for him. I spent an afternoon talking with him, and he agreed then to hire me as a postdoc, two-plus years later, when I finished my degree. I got some fellowships, then faculty positions at UCSF, Harvard, and at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. When the Salk position opened up in 2003, I moved back to California, and I haven't looked back since.

Would you make the same choices today?
Yes, there are still great resources for doing science in the U.S. And the Salk was the place for me. Here, a scientist is not stuck in a single intellectual track. If opportunities present themselves in other disciplines, there are world experts in these areas just down the hall, and you can scientifically redefine yourself. The Salk culture encourages transformation—here you are not boxed in.

How did you first become interested in life science research?
There were no scientists in my family. I developed an interest in science when a very good junior high school biology teacher opened my eyes. He shared his fascination with understanding how biological systems function. My parents encouraged me to be a medical doctor, but that wasn't for me.

Teachers are so important. I pay close attention to my kids' teachers. Luckily, today kids have access to so many more resources that they can almost inspire themselves. But they still need good role models.

What keeps you passionate about science?
The thrill of discovery! You know, there is a lot of disappointment in science. Sometimes you have to drag yourself in to the lab—when experiments don't work, or when manuscripts or grant proposals are rejected. You have to develop a strong resilience. This is a tough discipline, especially in the current funding climate. But when a member of my team walks into my office with a hot result, all of these concerns evaporate.

I also love the energy of my trainees. As a more senior scientist, I now have intellectual progeny—a network of people around the world making a difference in what we know about biology and contributing to biotechnology and pharma. That legacy is very satisfying.

What have the two wonderful gifts from the Nomis Foundation meant to you and your research at the Salk? The gifts created a core of scientific research in immunology that did not exist here before, with the development of new programs, better laboratory space and, recently, the hiring of two outstanding young investigators as neighbors. Both of them study how the immune response develops and is controlled. We have joint group meetings, and on a day-to-day level our interactions broaden the scope of scientific discourse here, and have created momentum. The gifts have also allowed us to establish the Nomis Center, which involves 11 different research groups at the Salk holding monthly meetings and initiating collaborations in immunology and microbiology. The additional Nomis resources, including an endowed chair, which I have just been awarded, provide crucial funds for us to explore new avenues of research.

And what does John Young do to keep himself sane?
Salsa dancing with my lovely wife Marianne, and spending time with each of my three children. I'm teaching myself to play the guitar at the moment. It is very therapeutic. I go home and strum for an hour, several nights a week, and really enjoy it.

Also, I recently took up extreme endurance bike riding. Sam [Pfaff, good friend and Salk faculty colleague] and I train for months for these day-long mountainous bike rides, which can be up to 130 miles long, with more than 15,000 feet of elevation gain. These rides and all of the training that goes along with them are a welcome release from the day-to-day demands of our work and really help to clear our minds. We encourage each other to push harder, all the while discussing science, the Institute, our families and anything else that comes to mind.